JO’S KILI DIARY
RONGAI ROUTE UP, MARANGU ROUTE DOWN.
We arrive at Rongai Gate at 2000m. There appears to be at least 2 other climb groups assembled with a lot of noise and efforts to organise amongst the guides. We pass over our rucksacks and sleeping bags and see them loaded into porters’ bags as they join the queue for everything to be weighed. We are directed over to the tourist hut where tables and chairs are erected for us to have lunch.
We ensure our day packs are correctly loaded with 2 litres in our camel paks 2 litres in our water bottles alongside waterproofs and plenty of ‘fruit n nut’. This seems quite heavy but is what we will need to get used to carrying for the next 6 days.
The walk to first caves, to our first overnight stop, is pretty long but OK. The start was quite chilly and I slightly regretted wearing my ‘skorts’ but stayed with it and doubled up on top. We couldn’t believe the pace set by our guide when we first set off. It was so slow it seemed almost comical. But we developed a rhythm quite quickly and ambled up the path. The path is quite established starting off like the bed of a dry stream.
We went through the last part of the government pine forest and withering corn fields and, just as we were entering the more indigenous forest, caught sight of 2 very smart collobus monkeys with their well groomed fluffy white tails in tow. The forest is maintained by a government trust which brings with it maintained paths: much kinder under foot. I drank about 3 litres of water, as recommended, and the whole group (of 4) seemed to be fine and not suffering at this stage. The last 20 mins or so was quite steep as we came out of the forest onto much more rugged terrain. However, there were lots of very pretty wild flowers and ferns and we felt we could almost have been in Scotland. Quite a lot of stops this afternoon – mainly so Clare could take photos – with opportunistic pees and a choccy stop. There was a lot of happy chatter as we approached camp.
There seem to be 3 climbs going on simultaneously and we have all stopped in close proximity as we check in and sign the official register at Rongai Caves camp. Apart from the registration building, there are no permanent structures. The camp is basic but very comfortable considering it lies on the side of a volcanic mountain. We have a sufficiently spacious tent, near to the mess tent and close enough (but not too close) to the loo tent with a flushing loo. On arrival at camp we were given warm water to wash our bodies (strip wash) and afternoon tea with yummy choc brownies in the mess tent. We assemble our little nest. The porters have already laid out a foam mattress and we lie our airbeds and thick sleeping bags on top. I roll up my puffa jacket and stuff it in a t-shirt for a make shift pillow – not too bad.
Back to tent for little lie down and before you know it supper’s ready. Delish veg soup, spaghetti bol and cake. We all measured our oxygen levels which were in the mid 90’s so all OK. Clare, Eli and I were all taking Diomox morning and night which probably helped maintain the right levels. In bed by 8.30. Thermals plus trackie bums, hoody and today’s socks. We both got to sleep q quickly but woke up at 10 for pee and midnight feast for Clare. Couple of other pee breaks in the night.
Woke early: 5.30. Tea delivered at 6.30 followed by hot water for washing at 7. Had To pack our things together so the porters could pack up camp. I’d bought some nice Clarins moisturiser at Heathrow and that felt like an overwhelming treat in our dusty surroundings. Breakfast at 8 started by purple porridge – made with millet apparently – but not that wow. Fresh fruit however was delish, followed by toast and fry up: omelette, tomatoes and hash browns. Very filling. Topped up water bottles including camel pak so 3 litres for the trek. We left camp at 8.30 for our 4 hour trek to lunch, climbing from 2800 to 3600m. The path turned much steeper then much more narrow & rugged. The porters all go ahead at a much faster pace. We follow in single file and mostly silence as we concentrate, head down, on where we place our feet. I felt the need to chat but that probably required extra air and wasn’t getting much of a response from my fellow climbers – even Clare who usually has a lot to say. I tried introducing silly games, including guess who, but had little support. So a bit long and boring. We felt as though we were climbing for ages all the time waiting for it to flatten out a bit. Eventually it did and small trees turned to shrubs and mountain plants.
We walked through the clouds so the atmosphere turned damp and chilly then, as we climbed through, the bright sunshine revealed the snow capped Kibo ridge above. It looked pretty daunting and I didn’t really want to look.
About the same time my headaches started and I began to feel quite fluey as we gained altitude. Paracetemol and lots of water relieved slightly but I felt rubbish when got to the lunch camp. However a good fill sorted that out a bit and a lie down in the shade.
The afternoon was more of a traverse up n down to Kicheche cave. Very narrow and lots of boulders and seemed to go on for ages. 3.5 hours but only 300m more to 3600m. The camp was a welcome sight although, again, there are about 4 groups here. Mind you we don’t interact with the others just a polite wave.
It’s all quite dusty so a bowl of warm water for washing was very welcome, albeit all we wanted to do was crash. Set up our home then called for afternoon tea (popcorn and ground nuts) which practically took us straight into dinner at 7. Excellent soup again (pumpkin) followed by lasagne and choc mousse. Fresh Ginger tea afterwards was lovely and Kaen reminded us this is what we’ll be drinking on the way to the summit. I have to say the summit seems a long long way and the likelihood of making it unlikely. Time to sleep on it and hopefully adjust to the altitude.
Woke up fine so obviously acclimatised. Beautiful sunny morning. Same routine at breakfast then off to Mwenzi Tarn at snail’s pace. The incline definitely increased and the path was not nearly so welcoming, very narrow with volcanic boulders and stones requiring full concentration. The climb seemed fairly endless with extensions to the hill appearing just as we thought we were near the top. We took it pole pole though and, even though we were climbing 800m didn’t seem to suffer too much from the increase in altitude. The sun was shining above the fluffy clouds hindering Kenya’s sunshine. And beautiful mountain flowers provided beautiful visual attraction with Kibo still dominating the westerly horizon. I tried not to focus on that too much – its presence still making me very nervous. I thought about Nick and the girls a lot today – they seem a world away and I miss them terribly. However, banter in the group seems to be gaining some momentum adding cheer and camaraderie. We passed 2 other groups as we came to camp. I say passed but actually with pee and drinking stops we all go at much the same slow steady pace, taking it in turns to lead.
We arrived at the tarn after a good 4 hour walk and are surprised to see so many climb teams here. Mwenzi Tarn is quite a remarkable spot. The tarn (small lake) has evaporated quite a lot and looks somewhat green. Mwenzi peak dominates to the south, dark red and I notice some climbers sitting half way up managing an acclimatisation walk. Then, easterly, Kibo raises its head. Mmmm.
So lunch (somehow they cooked chips on the mountain) and a much needed wash and nap. Very hot in the sunshine but as the sun dipped at 5ish so did the temperature – dramatically. Nice to have an afternoon off because tomorrow is a biggie: a 7 hour walk to Kibo then, at midnight, the big one. So far it’s been t-shirts and shorts (in Clare’s case) and light weight trousers. That all changes tomorrow.
So tea at the camp, Clare took loads of photos of the whole team (incl 23 porters, chef, camp manager, Renartus the assistant guide, and very entertaining Kaen, our head guide. Not to forget the loo man whose unenviable job is to empty and clean our flushable portable loo). They all sang local songs as they posed for the camera. We are far removed from Devon! Time for a bit of R&R then supper time: Mexican tonight. Amazing what they put together at 4500m. Chat predictably centred around the climb tomorrow night with mixed feelings of anxiety, trepidation and enthusiasm. Who knows. But by 8.30 we are tucked up in bed and looking forward to a good night’s sleep, save the loo calls. Mind you we seem to have those almost off pat by now and have learned not to deliberate but to get on with it.
Left Mwenzi at 8.30 for the long walk to Kibo. We were all in good spirits as we knew it was going to be a nice steady incline rather than the steep stuff we’d had yesterday. Firstly, we retraced our steps slightly then found ourselves on the saddle which is like a large open plain with 2 rather steep hills either side (Mwenzi and Kili). We could see the path that was predicted to take so long and which looked rather like something you might do on a Sunday afternoon on Dartmoor. But our baby steps and the distorting light made, what seemed close by, take forever.
Just as we started the slight incline we saw the scattered remains of a small plane crash that had happened about 5 years ago. Very eerie. The dry atmosphere had kept everything intact and we were told the story of how a flight of 5 had crashed by failing to gain sufficient altitude.
We stopped half way, where the crew had set up a kitchen and mess tent which seemed all very spoiling. Amazing what they come up with every time. We could clearly see the route up to Gillman’s which looked ridiculously steep but nothing too challenging. Ha. After lunch we set off for Kibo along the gentle track. Kibo camp was very busy with lots of chatter, excitement and the porters making a lot of noise as they set up their camps in the howling wind. I felt pretty groggy – like the flue had returned. We had tea and then an early supper (6) so we could go to bed for a few hours before being woken up again at 11 for tea and snacks and ready in all our kit and headtorches for a midnight departure. We measure our oxygen levels – now they were down to 79-84. I was definitely feeling nauseous and dodgy tummy so took a couple of immodiumClare and I were exhausted but I think the adrenalin stopped us sleeping so we weren’t exactly on fire for the start but the altitude sickness had subsided slightly.
At 11.30 we had cookies and tea coffee as a final refreshment then it was gloves, hats, jackets, rucksacks a-go-go.
What a way to start the day. We all lined up in the usual single file behind Kaen and headed off.
The mountain was full of what looked like strings of fairy lights, as about 20 climb teams made their ascent and some of which had had made significant progress up the mountain. How jealous I was of their progress.
It was a ridiculously slow pace, even more than we were used to, and seemed to start OK. Then we hit the gradient. Very soon we all started to feel a bit weird. The distance to go versus what we had achieved was enough to intimidate anyone. It became a struggle almost immediately. We would pass or be passed by other teams who were equally trepidatious and not showing any visible signs of enjoyment. Good we weren’t the only ones. It must be one of the only challenges where overtaking someone is considered ignorant because of the necessity to acclimatise by going pole pole.
We asked to stop quite early (Kaen had originally suggested 90 mins, 60 mins, 60 mins etc with 3 min breaks), but that didn’t last long. We held out for the first hour then I think it was half hourly (max). Fortunately, Clare seems to have a small bladder so we were all very pleased with her frequent requests to stop. There’s no doubt that all the walking we have done is extremely monotonous and even more so with this night time ascent. Altitude sickness soon kicked in for all of us. Peter felt nauseous, Clare was heady and out of breath, Eli had difficulty breathing. I felt drunk with a strong hangover thrown in. In fact much the same as I felt after Rosie’s party. We all started going a bit dulally because your brain ceases to be capable of thought – what you’re doing wholly taking up thought. For most of the ascent I was thinking I had ‘that’ hangover and that was all. Save later on where I simply counted to a thousand to fill in time. There was quite a wind but I enjoyed this initially – I think I probably had an altitude sickness temperature but later on this combined with local temperatures did mean we had to button up. Shortly after half way Peter’s nausea was too much for him and he quit so Renaltus took him down. Shame. In fact quite a few people seemed to be bailing which made you feel good and bad. We reckoned Peter hadn’t drunk nearly enough water. But oh how painful and all encompassing altitude sickness is. Clare had a couple of panic attacks where she thought she might faint, Eli adopted a bent over pose and had to give his poles to Kaen because his gloves weren’t warm enough. But we all got over ourselves, gritted our teeth, demanded lots of stops and eventually, scrambling exhausted over the top boulders, we made it to Gillman’s, 5700m. (The sun had started rising as we approached the top yet this was more of a quiet observation rather than appreciative enthusiasm). But brilliant. We had achieved but we were seriously underwhelmed due to exhaustion. Mohammed distributed Ginger tea which was OK (anything would seriously unimpress we felt so shite so probably the tea was fabulous) and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep. But, oh no, get ready to go everyone. Just an hour and a half to Uhuru.
I knew a lot of people gave up at Gilman’s but I felt I just about had it in me to keep going, certainly to Stella, but hopefully all the way if I dug deep enough. So on we went. I knew it was up and down to Stella and how lovely the downs were. I felt drunk, nauseous and had difficulty breathing and saw along the ridge fellow trekkers making their way to what I hoped was the top but suspected it might only be Stella. But struggled on we did, up and down lots of breathing, which I noted was much more rewarding thru the mouth, and I thought probably v loud, and we reached Stella. In fact, Stella was barely noticeable but that could be down to lack of observative skills on my part. We didn’t even stop and made our way on. I knew it was only 45 mins and that I just had to do that because, in the scheme of things that was only such a small % of everything we had achieved thus far.
My breathing got no easier, in fact nothing appeared to be easing. Stops were frequent if only for seemingly seconds. Hopefully it was safe for me to continue. Kaen didn’t seem alarmed so I put my trust in him. We would pass people coming down who were all very cheery and would say encouraging words: well done, not far to go, easy now. I chose to believe them and started climbing the ridge feeling about 50% out of body. I was surprised we had to walk across snow but it was hard packed so not too bad. I hoped the snow wouldn’t give me snow blindness. Gosh there are so many obstacles to overcome. Even though the path was relatively easy, I thought we’d never get there. But all good things come to those who endure and there it was: Uhuru, the highest point in Africa. We’d made it. 8.5 hours later. 5895m. I think we just about managed a congratulatory hug but that was about it in elation terms. There were a few photos by the sign – Clare had the Salcombe YC burgee and Eli his high school flags. I just wanted to sit down, relax and acclimatise but Kaen was keen we start the descent before any oedemas occurred.
So back down to Stella and stop for Ginger tea. I think I felt slightly better, we were able to walk faster now which was nice and the nausea seemed to subside slightly. Then across to Gillman’s and over the boulders at the top. It looked a long way down. It was. The descent takes about 3 hours. After the boulders and bumpy paths it was all scree.
We could have ambled down slowly but the scree allowed us to almost ski down which we did at high velocity – we were so delighted for altitude to be on our side and be able to breathe once more. But it was a long way down and quite testing on the legs. But nothing was going to stop us from getting back to Kibo huts asap. Eli was a little more careful than Clare and I but we were with reckless Kaen at this stage. The scree turned back to harder terrain about 3/4 of the way down. We joined hands with Kaen and marched back to camp. Hoorah. 12.30 ish. So celebratory iced tea and bed for an hour as a special treat. Peter had already left with Renaltus. Again, we couldn’t sleep and the prospect of a 4-5 hour walk down to the next camp wasn’t one we were looking forward to. Lunch in the mess tent, then pack up camp. We barely had the energy but got on with it and ready to go by 2.15.
We were happy to turn our backs on Kibo. It was such a windy and desolate place. Lots of over excited porters, jubilant descendees (or not) and wide eyed enthusiasm for tonight’s climbers. We tried to be as encouraging as possible but the greatest advice was it a challenge worth doing. How glad we were not to be in their shoes. So DOWN the well groomed path. No baby steps and room both in lung and path capacity to actually talk. How we enjoyed striding out. We walked back down the saddle down the Marangu route. So open plains and easy walking. The grasslands turned to bush with some rocky paths but altogether all much more groomed (or trodden) than Rongai. Horombo came with little exertion. After signing in and making up our tents, it was time for delicious supper. Our last supper on the mountain and fine it was. Spaghetti carbonara and fillet steak. Wow. Delicious. Horombo is still 3100m and very cold and windy. We watched with amusement all the newcomers – still looking very clean with their kit all shiny and new – just like themselves. We couldn’t help but feel a bit smug. We were tucked up in bed by 9 and straight to sleep. We were exhausted. But happily agreed to get up early for the final hurdle.
6.00 wakeup with peppermint tea and water for washing. The dust was so ingrained now it seemed barely worth it but a quick scrub up, pack up, breakfast and out of there by 7.30. One problem: our legs were so stiff from the scree we could barely walk – it felt as though I had metal sheets inserted into my calves and thighs. Ouch. The walk was long but very beautiful. The bush turned to rainforest with such bright greens they seemed plastic. Tall trees covered in fluff (like cobwebs), rubbery plants and bright coloured flowers in between. A slightly damp atmosphere. Very refreshing. And a nice path underfoot to boot.
After a couple of hours we crossed the new climbers. They were a real mixed bag and you could easily tell the difference between the professional and cheaper operators. Many groups seemed to be bouncing up which was a bit alarming but others were adopting the more pole pole way. We knew which ones were going to make it. We reached the next camp around noon where Clare took some great shots of a Collobus family. This camp was very green and lush and the buildings much more sophisticated than those on the north side. So, time for a little snack, then crack on we must. Our legs had seized up again and now we just wanted to get there. Fortunately the scenery was still very beautiful and we were all able to maintain an element of cheery chat. The walk from Horombo was 28k and it felt like it. By 2pm we reached the gate. It was over. Sign in and certificates issued. Last lunch in the tourist shelter, hand back hired kit, and gave Kaen our tips ($100) – although nothing from Peter very annoyingly (apparently Tanzanians don’t tip Tanzanians). We had to work out how much for each of the porters cook etc and then observe Kaen distributing. A bit tedious but, apparently, so we can see no dodgy dealings. My walking boots had come apart at the back so I asked one of the female porters if she’d like them. They were far too big but she seemed so thrilled she kept them. The other female porter seemed upset so Eli gave her a spare pair of sunglasses. She was happy.
So, time for goodbyes and then back to Moivaro for that much needed shower we will miss Kaen’s banter and funny laugh – huh-hugh. We were given a much nicer room at Moivaro and were excited to be returning the land of creature comforts.
It was over. We’d done it. After a good night’s sleep we could hold our heads high: we’d climbed the highest mountain in Africa.
I travelled with Safari&Beach and who recommended Nature Discovery as the local operator and guide team.
Climb dates: Monday 12 July to Saturday 17 July, 2010